I’ve been having as much fun receiving the amazing drawings (below) from Julian and posting them as I’m sure you’ve had sharing the genius we all know as Julian Tomchin. The following paragraphs are about another genius I had the privilege of working with – that the world lost last week -- but not completely. His genius lives on in the remarkable body of work he leaves behind for us to share for years to come – Michael Jackson.
I was with my then partner Buz Kohan, when we caught our first, up close, glimpse of him. Buz had been my writing partner in high school before I met Lan Okun at SU, and we had teamed up again, to take a crack at breaking in to the biz. We already had a successful relationship with Motown, that began with our writing the first-ever TV special for Diana Ross and The Supremes – that included an appearance by another Motown act - The incomparable Temptations. We even wrote the title song for the show which was called TCB (Taking Care of Business) and is on the record of the show that would "go Gold" .
That was followed by a request from genius Berry Gordy and his (also genius) associate Suzanne DePasse to write what would be the premier Las Vegas stage appearance in the MGM Grand Hotel of the Motown group that was then still known as “The Jackson Five” .
We were standing in the kitchen of the Jacksons’ Encino, California home late one night, where we had been summoned to appear for a last minute once-over approval by we weren’t sure who. It turned out to be this 14-year old kid, dressed in pajamas, an old-fashioned kimono and slippers – the one-fifth of the Jackson Five whose name was Michael, accompanied by his Mom Catherine. Of course he already stood out from the rest, when they were onstage. In fact he positively glowed! Now it appeared that, even by then, it was Michael who was also running the on-stage show part of the Jacksons' lives.
The look on his face as we shook hands wasn’t exactly a scowl, but it was hardly friendly. And I couldn't really blame him. Who were these white guys who were claiming they could write an act for him and his brothers, anyway? Sure, they’d done a pretty good job for Diana and the Temps, but this was different.
It turned out that we did a pretty good job for them, too. So
much so that we would also write their first TV appearance on a show of their own. In fact, Buz continued to work closely with Motown and specifically with Michael even after I had
left Show Business. i.e., He co-wrote the song that Michael would sing in tribute to Princess Diana called, “Gone Too Soon” - whose title ironically also helped memorialize last week's sad event (See pic above) . Don’t know for sure that Buz would agree , but
arguably the high-point of that
relationship , was that he would be the principal writer for the now legendary
MOTOWN 25 Show that would feature an extraordinary performance by Michael, and
included the first time the world would ever see his famous “Moon Walk”.
It was a few days before the actual taping of MOTOWN 25 that
I ran into Michael again, almost a decade after I had last seen and worked with him as a 14-year old. It was also before the release of the equally legendary album, that would catapult him into
Superstardom forever! – a little artpiece called THRILLER! I was standing in
the equivalent of a TV studio’s Green Room area in the Universal (now Gibson) Amphitheater which had recently been converted into an indoor arena, where another
(genius) friend - Liza Minnelli – was appearing. I was waiting for my chance to say “Hi” , congratulate her for the magnificent performance I had just witnessed - she was at the top of her game at the time - and to thank her for the two tickets she had sent for me and the mutual friend I was now working with -
Martin had been asked by – here comes another legendary genius name – James Cagney, to play him in a movie about his life. I was living down the block from Martin at the time and he had graciously done a couple of turns for me, including an appearance at Kennedy Center in Washington, along with a bunch of other stars and 150 Native Americans in a one-night-only Live Show I had co-produced and written called “Night of the First Americans”. It was because of what he saw of my work while appearing in that show, which included comedy, music and dance numbers, that Martin and his then partner Bill Greenblatt, decided I would be the guy to write the Cagney bio-movie, since Cagney had always thought of himself primarily as a “song and dance man”. Who can forget his Oscar-winning performance in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY.
So Martin and Bill G. made arrangements for me to go
to Mr. Cagney’s 600-acre farm in upstate New York for six weeks and sit and
talk with him – figuring that perhaps from
out of that day-to-day, one-on-one
relationship, a script for a movie might
emerge. (That experience deserves a book of its own. Suffice to say I cried like a baby for at least an hour after Martin had picked me up and we drove back to New York. Somehow I knew I would never see that lovely man again.) The script did happen. But the movie never did, because of a ridiculous falling out Martin and Bill G. and the
lady I was now waiting in the Green Room to say hello to, would have with the woman who had
caused it - a rather odd but brilliant woman, who was in charge of all things Cagney - including who got hired and fired. Liza had agreed to my suggestion that she play
the role of Cagney’s wife in the movie that would never happen, which is why she had sent us the tickets for that night’s performance.
That’s the back-story... when into the Green Room came Michael Jackson.
Keep in mind, that although he was famous, this was still during a time when fans were arguing over things like who would have greater staying power Michael, who was about to REALLY go solo, or Prince. (Remember him?) So no one acted crazy just because the soon-to-be “Gloved One” had suddenly graced us all with his presence. On the contrary, he was hardly noticed. And since Michael, by nature, was indeed shy - until he turned that internal switch on, no one approached him. Besides this was the access-controlled Green Room area where it was not proper protocol to approach one Star while you were waiting to say hello to the Star who gave you access to the heavily guarded environment, in the first place.
Michael and I nodded to each other from across the room, but didn’t actually speak to each other until after we had each spoken privately to Liza and were headed out of the arena, him to meet whomsoever and me to meet Martin who had gone to get his car and would be picking me up at the stage door. Michael had apparently been within earshot of my brief conversation with Liza and heard her say she had just seen Buz a few hours before - but didn't mention where. Buz and I had known genius Liza since genius Bob Dishy had introduced us to her back in the Stone Age when they were playing opposite each other in “Flora The Red Menace”. And we had become closer as friends as a result of a couple of other shows we had worked on together - and even closer later when we spent an extended period working with her genius Mom, Judy G. ( Lordie! - Talk about genius-dropping!)
Back to the genius about whom this remembrance is concerned.
As we walked together down the stairs to the exits, Michael mentioned he’d also just seen Buz - at the MOTOWN 25 rehearsals - and asked why I wasn’t there, as
well. I told him the truth. I hadn’t been asked, adding that genius Buz and I had split up
when I left Show Business back in the 70’s. This was now early ’83. Michael then asked
what I had done after leaving the biz. I told him I had initially gone to live with
the Hopi Indians – which was also true. To which he said, “I don’t know if I
could do that...” Then he asked what I
was doing now. I told him about Sheen and Liza and the movie... and that I had just returned from spending six weeks with Cagney. He seemed interested,
but it was the manner in which he responded to Cagney’s name when I mentioned it, that would reveal volumes about his inner self.
He paused for a beat... then another... before saying: “Cagney?!... He good.”
He didn’t use the normal-speak “He’s good” ... He was speaking from within a deeper place than the usual cognitive area of our mind/brain which is generally the reflexive source for our words, concepts and sentences. And in doing so, he revealed not only his Gary, Indiana African-American roots, but another strangely disturbing fact. He must have constantly been comparing himself to anyone else who was famous for their talents – and specifically when their names came up in conversation. Although I doubt if he ever was vocal about it, as he had just been with me.
His response told me that he had approved of Cagney. The famous actor might have even been in that rare category that included the names of others who were, in Michael's mind, actually in active competition with him. But that was still before his double-barreled assault on our sensibilities, with his astounding “Moon Walk” and the equally astounding "Thriller" album which had been completed just a couple of months before, but had yet to be released, and its accompanying 14-minute long music video, that would explode on MTV around Christmas time of that same year.
We shook hands and parted company, each of us going our separate ways. But as we did so, some of the fans that were crowded around the stage door spotted him and yelled out his name, as did others who were alerted to his presence, adding an occasional “Hi, Michael!”. He “Hi” 'ed back.
Then one of the fans yelled out “Hey Michael, are ya ever gonna do another stage performance?" To which Michael responded, just loud enough for me to hear, “ If Bill Angelos will write it for me.”
I never saw - or heard from him - again.
Rest in Peace, Michael Joseph Jackson... In my eyes, mind, and heart, as in those of countless millions' of others, you’ve more than earned at least that.